Twin Failures In The Ashes, And That The Captain, Burns Recovery > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more
Cricket news - Twin failures to Ashes centurion - The Burns turnaround
"Head down, ass up!"
It's not a quote you will see emblazoned on a motivational poster and certainly not words uttered by Winston Churchill, even though he had quite the mouth on him. This is the phrase Rory Burns took with him into the most pivotal week of his life.
Having watched him bat for a day here, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was simply instructions for how he bats, though if it were it should probably read "head bobbing down from midwicket, ass up in square leg's face". Nope, this was a simple message to himself. To knuckle down and get himself out of a rut.
To say it served him well would be an understatement. Not only did he tick off a maiden Test century, but he is now an Ashes centurion. The first English opener since Gooch in 1993 to make it to three figures in the opening home Test against Australia. By the way, he now has more home Ashes hundreds than Alastair Cook. Funny game, this.
He remains on 125 not out, unbeaten through the entirety of day two to ensure England, who trail by 17, are on course to take a sizeable lead into the second innings of this match.
You could say there was an inevitability to all this, and Surrey fans would be the first to suggest so. After all, when one of your academy products grows to become club captain and lead you to a first title in 16 years, while stitching together five four-figure seasons on the bounce, you're going to bat for him as relentlessly as he's done for you. Certainly the opportunity to test himself at this level has been earned, but it is in the last few days, with his head down and ass up, that really made today count.
Following a pair of sixes against Ireland at Lord's, Burns, felt something was wrong with his game. Nothing particularly drastic, but enough to have him nicking off defending balls that weren't troubling his stumps. Which, actually, is pretty drastic for an opening batsman.
Publicly, he was unflappable. But privately, for the first time in his career, he was doubting himself. His technique - homespun and true - requires total confidence. Even the slightest chink can be terminal. He buried his head in the sand, avoiding the stream of media calling for his axing ahead of this match. Then, he made two important calls.
The first was to the England management. Having been picked in the squad, the coaches gave the players the option of either coming up on Sunday to net on Monday, or arriving Monday evening ahead of Tuesday morning training.
Some players unsure of their position would have chosen the eager beaver route, bright and early as possible to at least make a good impression off the field. Burns, though, opted for the late check-in on Monday because of a second, more important call to Neil Stewart.
Neil, the brother of England legend and Surrey director of cricket Alec, is an academy coach at the Oval and has known Burns since he was six years old, through the schools and age-group pathways. He has been a mentor to the 28-year old right the way through, from when he was a kid of slight frame whose lack of strength meant he would always develop as a bottom-hand dominant player.
While Alec, aged 56, is still a picture of fitness, Neil is a tad more "robust", to put it kindly. Alec often jokes that the most telling influence Neil would have on the fitness of those under his care would be to make them run laps around him. But when it comes to batting technique, even the man with 8,463 Test runs knows he comes second to Neil's expertise.
In Surrey - and beyond - Neil is considered something of a batting yoda. And what makes his methods so effective are his relatability and his ethos of coaching the player, not the method. Ideal when dealing with someone of Burns' method.
So with something on his mind, Burns asked Neil for his time. On Sunday, they met up at the London School of Economics' training ground in New Malden, which Surrey have helped develop into a first-class training facility. They then had one more session on a practice wicket at The Oval on Monday. Alec was throwing to Burns, while Neil provided the expertise from square-on.
Between both sessions, they also examined two different bits of footage. The first was an innings Burns played against Hampshire last year: the best of his four first class centuries in 2018, a 151 against a Hampshire attack of Dale Steyn, Fidel Edwards, Kyle Abbott and Gareth Berg. The second was a compilation of his twin failures from Lord's just a few days earlier.
Neil noticed a problem. Burns' hands, which flap out wide to loosen his wrists and move the toe of his bat from pointing to gully to first slip were too far away at the point the left-hander would engage a delivery. It meant he played more across the line than usual and, in turn, affected the alignment of his feet.
Ironically, despite possessing such a homespun technique, Neil has found that when Burns is out of nick, he is very easy to recalibrate. Because in Burns' world of perfect imperfection, the smallest change is noticeable.
This correction ensured Burns could drive a little easier, like when he threaded Pat Cummins behind square for the first of his 16 boundaries. Or indeed when he struck the same bowler down the ground to move to 92.
What followed was an hour or so in the nineties. They certainly looked nervous, especially when he spent 10 balls on 99. In among those and other deliveries were plays and misses. All in all, his inside and outside edges were beaten 23 times. But the robustness of his technique meant he was able to hold rather than push. He was beaten off the pitch by some quality Australian bowling throughout the day, but never in his own mind. Australia assistant coach commended Burns' character and concentration. And he'd know.
On 22, though, he should have been adjudged LBW to Nathan Lyon. Not out was the on-field call and no review was taken. But, heck, this is still cricket. Consulting tapes, refreshing techniques and showing mental fortitude do not matter if luck is not on your side.
This knock felt like a success story for consistency. Of a man reaping the rewards for persisting with a technique and sticking with a coach who steers him right. He even stuck with the celebration that has greeted his previous 17 first-class hundreds: a bow because friends and teammates have often remarked upon his oriental appearance.
It was at this point in the innings that Neil, watching from his couch at home, decided to head off to his local pub. He had remained in placed right the way through, until Burns pushed for that hurried single off his 224th ball. Only then, in true cricket superstition, was he allowed to leave his seat.
While he was nursing the first of no doubt many celebratory Peronis, he refused to take any of the credit. In his opinion, Burns has done the hard work, not just in the last week but throughout his career.
"Hopefully he doesn't call me again for the next five years," Neil remarked, with a broadening smile. "Because that'll mean he's made a huge success of Test cricket."
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